Some see images of super-fat cattle when they think of the thick prairies of the Smoky River country of western Kansas. Others think of the myriad of wildlife that can abound in the rolling hills and canyons.
Matt Bain wants people to think of both.
“We want this to be a demonstration area that shows you can have a balance with a successful ranching operation and a healthy abundance of wildlife in the short and mixed-grass prairie,” said Bain, manager of the about 17,000-acre Smoky Valley Ranch, about 20 miles south of Oakley. The land was purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 1999, and is part of about 47,000 acres the conservation group manages in Kansas.
That doesn’t mean wildlife is the only concern. “This ranch really pays for itself, it makes enough of a profit (from custom cattle grazing) to pay for it’s operation,” Bain said. “That’s something that’s important to be able to say if you’ve trying to demonstrate what we’re doing.”
Bain said they’re trying to replicate a management pattern Mother Nature developed many centuries ago.
“Prairie has to be grazed to be healthy, but it has to be grazed right,” he said. “You want it to be grazed down, but then the plants given a chance to grow back. It’s what the great herds of buffalo did long ago, staying on the move and grazing. We’re doing the same thing, only using cattle to imitate the buffalo. We rotate their grazing and watch our stocking rates to keep things healthy.”
Friday morning, Bain, who was raised in western Kansas amid cattle operations and is an avid outdoorsman and wildlife biologist, repeatedly stopped amid a tour of broad expanses of little bluestem and other optimal grasses. He explained how plants that are over-grazed don’t get a chance to grow strong root systems, and that prairie soil needs a covering to preserve moisture and add nutrients.
While wildlife ranging from ground squirrels and garter snakes to big mule deer bucks and a show-piece herd of about 100 buffalo thrive on the ranch, he said lesser prairie chickens and prairie dogs draw most of the attention. Lesser prairie chicken populations have seen serious enough decline in some areas the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering them for their threatened or endangered species list.
Bain said the ranch’s grazing program produces the nesting, feeding and brood-rearing habitat lessers are now lacking over much of their range, and that what benefits them also benefits a variety of other prairie-dwelling wildlife and, importantly, cattle.
“The more pounds of forage for cattle, the better the lesser prairie chicken habitat,” he said.
He referred to prairie dogs as a “keystone species” because many other species of wildlife, from box turtles to burrowing owls, depend on prairie dogs’ burrowing and open fields to more easily survive. Endangered black-footed ferrets have been stocked on Smoky Valley Ranch.
Still, like the grazing, the ranch believes in moderation with prairie dogs. Bain hopes the tours they give to range management groups might offer landowners a way to moderate prairie dogs on their lands.
He can show them how to move prairie dogs to an area where they may not be as problematic. “Burning,” he said. “If you burn, the prairie dogs will be there soon. They like the bare, open ground and they love to eat the tender shoots that will be growing.” Rotational grazing, which benefits cattle and prairie chickens, can also keep prairie dogs at lower densities.
He realizes prairie dogs are controversial with a lot of ranchers, but said that most people with such ties to the land care deeply about wildlife and a good ecological balance. “Most of us want to keep common species common, and rare species from going extinct,” he said. “If we can identify ways of maintaining livestock profitability, and provide more habitat for wildlife, then more folks might consider it.”